Beyond care versus control: decision-making discourses and their functions in child protection social work

15 Apr 2013

The process of coming to judgement in child protection social work is like deciding whether or not to jump from the Titanic as it lists: both types of decisions operate under limited time, conditions of uncertainty, lack of complete knowledge of all relevant factors, unknown and unknowable outcomes and significantly negative possibilities regardless of which option is taken. As people make complex decisions of this nature, they must not only 'discover' relevant information, but in order to make sense of that information or determine its relevance, must undertake an interpretive process of knowledge construction. This process is reliant on their preconceived interpretive lenses and the interactional social context. Drawing on a social constructionist perspective, this study examines how social workers negotiate the discursive lenses specific to their social context to produce the reasoning rationales that underpin decisions. In response to challenges to understand the rationalities informing everyday social work practice, this study contributes to a significant gap in the literature, especially in the Aotearoa/New Zealand (A/NZ) child protection context (Taylor & White, 2001; Stanley, 2007). This qualitative study of social workers and their clients in an NGO context examines the 'range of rationalities' used by social workers to make decisions in cases social workers felt 'pleased with' (Kemshall, 2010). The study found that social workers' decisions operate with reference to a discursive schema that generates a hierarchy of options from most to least desirable. Underpinning the schema is an overall preference for family maintenance, and this structures the range of decision outcomes ranging from working with a family to ensure the child can remain living at home, to permanent removal. 'Family maintenance' as a desirable outcome is supported by the legal context and moral commitments of social workers, making it particularly powerful as an underpinning ideal. Deciding which option to take on the schema, however, is not straightforward, and relies on the interconnections between the family maintenance discourse and several other interpretive concepts. These include: children's best interests, conceptualised as relational needs and rights; harm, primarily psychological harm; non-culpable yet micro-oriented constructions of original family problems, such as mental illness and lack of support; risk (and safety) concepts, heavily influenced by the Signs of Safety approach (Turnell & Edwards, 1999) and a Maori practice model used by the agency; a belief in parental client's ability to change within a strong emphasis on relationship building and exception finding; and ethical notions of 'respect for persons'. 'Respect for persons', in terms of a parent's right to autonomy, was delimited with reference to children's right to protection, in order to determine when the use of hierarchical power was legitimate (Bundy-Fazioli et al., 2009). The Signs of Safety model assisted social workers to make this distinction by carefully defining what was considered as 'harm'. These findings are discussed with reference to decision trajectories. In general, these constructions guided social workers to resist defensive, reactive responses to 'risk', and therefore encouraged decisions that were as least intrusive as possible into biological families. Further, decisions that supported the family maintenance preference were related to the construction of parents as complex, creditworthy individuals with the potential for both harmful behaviour and competent, safe parenting practices. Overall, this combination of constructions influenced social worker's capacity for privileging their perceptions of children's long-term needs, and forming a relationship with parental clients that contained important aspects of collaboration despite unequal power dynamics. Ongoing evaluations of parental 'riskiness' generally lowered over time, as the offering of morally acceptable subject positions to parental clients and a focus on future safety enabled clients to respond in collaborative, non-defensive ways.The intersections between decisions, discourse, power and relationships are discussed with reference to ongoing patterns of decision-making, micro/macro dichotomies, and ethical issues. The micro focus of the discourses used to construct risk, safety, family problems and children's best interests can be viewed as obscuring structural factors such as gender and class. However, many collaborative aspects of knowledge production between social workers and clients, combined with the role of the agency as a buffer against pernicious aspects of current state policy, provided important opportunities for empowerment for clients and a humane and inclusive approach to the constructions that frame significant decisions in this context. Thus, simple empowerment vs. control dichotomies are unhelpful for theorising child protection decisions. Both exist simultaneously within social worker's practices that must contain aspects of various forms of power, discretion, control and surveillance in order to respond to the rights and needs of both child and adult clients.

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